I used to think that any movie that Robert De Niro attached his name to had to be good. And that used to be true. I was willing to take a chance on low budget or blockbuster films, knowing that De Niro wouldn’t lead me wrong. Then along came Stardust, and honestly, the man hasn’t been in a good film in some years now. Still, my loyalty remains, and What Just Happened looked to be interesting enough that my buddy, Bobby D couldn’t disappoint me again. So, what did just happen? He let me down.Films about filmmaking are always a hazard. We all think that we want to see inside the true Hollywood, don’t we? Gossip programs and internet sites would seem to indicate that we can’t get enough of the inside poop. So, the temptation to deliver accurate films that portray these inside aspects of Hollywood come along every once and awhile. We peek, because we think we want to know. The truth is that voyeurism gets boring pretty quickly. We all want to eavesdrop on other people’s private moments. I’ve done it both professionally as a private detective and even for fun with a scanner that allowed me to listen to cell phones back in the old analog days. You know what? People are boring. It was exciting at first and my friend Mike and I would sit and listen to stuff for hours. We would get together and talk about what interesting things we heard. Before long we both realized that most of it was so painfully mundane that we just sort of stopped doing it. That’s what these films remind us. No matter how exciting the world of movie stars, directors, and producers might look from the outside, 90% of it is pretty pedestrian stuff. Unfortunately this film doesn’t spend much time in the 10% that might be exciting. In the end, not even some good casting could save this picture from making me feel like I did listening to those cell phones.
Robert De Niro is Ben, a big time producer and power broker in Hollywood. He’s dealing with two films at the moment. One is already shot and stars Sean Penn. The film’s director, Jeremy Brunell (Wincott), is a temperamental pill addict. When the advance screening doesn’t go so well, he’s told he has to redo an ending that shows a dog get blasted dead by the film’s bad guys. He doesn’t want to compromise his artistic integrity, but the studio boss, Lou Tarnow (Keener) will pull the plug on his Cannes premier if he doesn’t play ball. Ben’s upcoming film stars Bruce Willis, who shows up for his fitting appointment overweight and sporting a “Grizzly Adams” beard, which he refuses to shave. The studio bosses insist they’ll shut the film down and sue everybody involved if Willis won’t shave the beard and work out to lose weight. Willis’s agent is a crazy hypochondriac who is deathly afraid of his client, so Ben can’t get him to lay down the law. The agent is played wonderfully by quirky character actor John Turturro. Ben needs both pictures to work out because he’s supporting two ex-wives who are used to fancy living at his expense. The film is mostly told from Ben’s point of view, often through De Niro’s narration, as he attempts to save both pictures and deal with the more recent of his ex-wives. They’re actually in therapy to learn how to live without each other.
There are some wonderful acting moments in the film. Bruce Willis shows the most heart and steals the film with the minor role of playing himself. He goes into a hilarious tantrum in the dressing room when Ben’s trying to explain why the beard must go. His solution to the problem, which I won’t reveal here, is one of the best moments in the film. But, with these fleeting moments of wonderful performances, the film is often rather empty. De Niro doesn’t appear to have his heart in this picture, for some reason. He’s one of the producers, but I never get the sense that he very happy to be here. You all know what I’m talking about. If you want to see what De Niro looks like when he’s having fun, check out Wag the Dog. The truth is there is a ton of proven talent on this film. We’ve come to expect good stuff out of guys like Barry Levinson, but this film never breaks out of the occasional amusing moment. There’s no question it feels authentic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it very accurately portrays the industry. After all, the script was based on the memoirs of Art Linson, who is no stranger to the inside of Hollywood. Watching lions sleep in the tall grass is authentic, too, but how long are you willing to watch before you turn the dial?
What Just Happened is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The best part of this transfer is the combination of deep black levels and wonderful contrast. The nightlife stuff is absolutely incredible. Colors, particularly reds, pop even under the low lights. The perfect contrast allows for both these wonderful color explosions but the sharpness of the lights against an almost perfectly black background. I wasn’t as impressed when the light was better. The film took on a slightly washed out look that never quite appeared natural. These shots show a total lack of imagination either on Levinson’s part or that of the cinematographer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty much a minimalist affair. This is a comedy that has loads of dialog. There really isn’t anything going on. Expect a very front heavy presentation. But the dialog is clean and always audible. There aren’t any flaws with the sound; they just didn’t have a lot to work with here. It’s all it needs to be for this kind of film.
There’s an amusing Audio Commentary with director Barry Levinson and writer Art Linson. It’s not terribly engaging, and they spend too much time telling each other how wonderful they are. There’s also a lot of down time.
Deleted Scenes: You get 7 minutes, and most of it is dealing with the ending. There is an alternative ending with different De Niro narration which wraps up all of the film’s threads nicely. There is also a reedit of the original ending without the De Niro narration at all.
Behind The Scenes: At just 3 minutes there certainly isn’t a tremendous amount of depth here. The piece basically allows you to see two scenes being filmed. You get the spa scene and the red carpet scene after the Cannes premiere.
Casting Sessions: This is a prime example of how much mundane minutia the film focuses on. While I like the occasional audition piece, this one appears to show you the audition sessions for pretty much every minor character in the film. Really. Who cares?
Making Of What Just Happened – From Script To Screen: This 23 minute piece is mostly interview material. Levinson, Linson, and De Niro mostly talk about why the film became a project for them and pretty much join each other’s fan clubs. It’s a dull piece, and while they all talk about their love for the material, there is zero passion in any of these clips. They might just as well have been talking about their Aunt Mary’s tuna casserole recipe.
No Animals Were Harmed In The Making Of This Movie: It’s a 2 minute mockumentary with the dog who plays the unfortunate ending in the controversial film inside the film. He’s given a voice and mostly talks about how well he was treated on the set.
It’s probably very hard to make an “inside Hollywood” comedy that doesn’t have problems with trivial material. Recently I saw Tropic Thunder and found it to be that rare exception. If you want to laugh at the movie making business, go that route instead. De Niro purists will watch it anyway, but it might just temper your enthusiasm for the next one. It’s mostly good insomniac material if you use as directed. The film may tell the truth, but this is the exception to the rule “the complete truth will get you far”.